Festivals: Migrating Forms
The logo for the latest edition of Migrating Forms, which ran this past December, features a thumb resting in a giant nostril. The ubiquitous “thumbs up,” associated with Roger Ebert and Facebook likes, turns into an uncouth intruder (you try shoving your thumb up your nose in public) and a signifier of unhinged digital representations of the body. The perplexing image comes from Even Pricks by Ed Atkins (who also made this year’s official trailer), and somehow it served as an apt emblem for the festival’s offerings at BAMcinématek, a departure from its previous base at Anthology Film Archives. Now in its fifth year, the successor to the New York Underground Film Festival continued its strong showcases of contemporary experimental work with an international scope alongside varied revivals (Sandra Bernhard, Johnnie To). Programmers Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry embrace an expansive understanding of cinematic work, which adds up to more than just an eclectic mix.
Migrating Forms deserves recognition for its dedication to bringing work culled from biennials and gallery exhibitions into a cinematic space. Surprise Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost’s Swallow, which deploys hypnotic exhortations (“This image is undressing you, you drink the image”) and resembles an ancient fresco of water nymphs come to life, was one of many such works. In the theater, Prouvost’s use of sounds of breathing (which Benjamin deemed “the mode most proper to the process of contemplation”) were especially affective, and the work succeeds in leaving ample room for ruminations on its epicurean frolics. While Migrating Forms continues to serve as a reminder of the vibrance and potential of cinematic space in an age of medium and platform agnosticism, many screenings underlined the necessity for a sustained critical investigation that reverses the terms of the usual discussion by focusing on the exhibition of contemporary art in the cinema.
The opening screening of the works of Ryan Trecartin heralded the festival’s array of human (and inhuman) figurations and relationships with the camera. Of the four videos Trecartin made for the 2013 Venice Biennale and presented here, three imagine the radical offspring of our media-suffused and brand-saturated moment. Trecartin’s shambolic works display a laudable drive to comprehend the contradictions of contemporary society: they’re as much pseudo-anthropological investigations as they are network overloads. In Trecartin’s mythology, these chattering posthuman reality stars comprise a brood that has returned to a recognizably human form after becoming “animated.” “Animation” is used as a catchall term for society’s increasing virtualization. (Repeated references to the evolution of dinosaurs into birds reinforce the loosely defined developmental narrative.) These are dispatches from a present-day future in which the mediation of everything from food to history has mushroomed with a dizzying dominance. In CENTER JENNY, one of the many Jennys describes sexism not as a phenomenon but as a good look. “Enough time has passed,” someone chimes in, satirizing our own faith in historical distance.
Departing from the settings of the other three works, Trecartin’s Junior War looks instead at a recent past but provides perhaps the clearest demonstration of the artist’s genealogical impulses. In Trecartin’s hands, early-2000s footage of amped-up, mischievous high-schoolers becomes the rampage of a suburban war machine, depraved yet innocent. But if it’s release and destruction these kids are seeking, they’re always denied, and not only because they’re hassled by the cops. In one memorable sequence, a well-pummeled mailbox fails to bend to the force of restless youth. (It’s eventually deemed “fucking indestructible.”) The “warfare” begs the question: what hostilities are they rehearsing for? Revolution might be a generous analysis. While last year’s Migrating Forms felt like a response to political upheaval, Junior War suggests a sense of political frustration instead of emancipation.
The Salad Zone
The mailbox that wouldn’t break was echoed in Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdallah’s The Salad Zone, when two burqa-clad figures beat tools against a television’s glass face. A subtitle early in the video reads “There is so little room for abstractions”—yet through self-documentation Abdallah is able to find space to traffic in abstraction, as in one shot in which she makes herself so small as to fit into a large cooking pot. One of the strongest in the shorts programs, the film follows Abdallah and mixes diary footage with mysterious activities. From monotonous scenes of mundane action—chasing a cockroach through the living room with the camera—to discreet performances in public and domestic spaces, Abdallah’s film suggests that, even in a repressive society, transgressions are relative (tellingly, the TV eventually breaks).
The poignant work of Super-8 diarist Anne Charlotte Robertson, grounded in her manic and therapeutic relationship with the camera, received a mini retrospective. Two films from her “Five Year Diary” project—A Breakdown and After the Mental Hospital (82) and Emily Died (94)—show her acerbic wit as well as a deep sadness and longing. In a voiceover layered with other sounds, we hear of her love for Doctor Who’s Tom Baker, her compulsive appetite, and her depression (Robertson was diagnosed as bipolar with post-traumatic stress disorder). Her fear of breakdown reaches a fever pitch in Emily Died, in which Robertson mourns the death of her young niece and returns to the liveliness of her garden for solace and reminiscences. These films (along with 1990’s Apologies, a work of frenetic penance) are a small part of the extensive collection left to the Harvard Film Archive after her death in 2012. Certain materials won’t be available for a decade, meaning that there’s yet more to come of Robertson’s work.
Merce by Merce by Paik
Taking centerstage for one packed single screening was Without You I’m Nothing, the 1990 film of Sandra Bernhard’s one-woman show. Bernhard gives a marvelous performance. Directed, like the stage show that preceded it, by John Boskovich, the act is set at an L.A. nightclub with an African-American audience that’s constantly rolling their eyes at her shtick. Amidst her long-winded comic routines, in which she skewers herself while maintaining an ineffable poise, Bernhard leaves room for musical numbers ranging from Burt Bacharach medleys to Nina Simone and Prince. Her dexterous impersonations and identities may feel a bit dated (at least for this young viewer) but her intrepid style is anything but. In one of many canny programming decisions, Without You I’m Nothing complemented the program “Merce Cunningham for Camera,” which featured two works from the collection of regular Migrating Forms collaborator Electronic Arts Intermix (previous EAI screenings include Raymond Pettibon’s Sir Drone and works by Cynthia Maughan). Cunningham’s collaborations with Nam June Paik and Charles Atlas showed the unique degree to which Cunningham worked with the camera as a choreographic interlocutor—a dynamic equally palpable in Bernhard’s film.
From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf
Fresh possibilities for documentation emerged in From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf from the Indian collective CAMP. The artists gave cell-phone cameras to sailors working on boats crossing the Arabian Sea, and the result offers a salient and engaging look at the lives of globalization’s precarious workhorses. If Leviathan epitomizes the sensory potential of radically unfastened cameras, CAMP’s project looks more deeply into the politics of who picks up the camera. Similarly rooted in an intricate editing process, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf looks for meaning in this politicization and finds new cultural values in the oft-maligned camera-phone. From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf is refreshing: humanizing without being mawkish and shot through with spontaneous expressions of joy from sing-alongs to dolphin-spotting.
If how we are ourselves—and perhaps how we are selves at all—changes in relation to our technologies of representation, Ed Atkins’s melancholy animations move into the realm of newer media. If Trecartin’s evolutionary mythology portrays humans after their “animated” stage, Atkins might be investigating the missing link. “Once upon a time a couple of people were alive who were friends of mine,” we hear in Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths, setting the ghostly tone. Atkins’s HD protagonists are like walking carcasses—an excess of pixels with nothing underneath, leading to a crisis that the subjects of his works labor to express. His unsettling attention to the details—hair, eyes, mouths—that animation studios typically labor over in pursuit of naturalism lends the images an unsettling, morbid quality. Even Pricks, a newer work with a surfeit of clean phallic thumbs, takes an even more somber stance. “THIS SUMMER, DESTROY YOUR LIFE” reads the mock-action-movie-trailer titles that appear throughout. Ian Cheng’s bbrraattss, which recasts Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd as twitching three-dimensional figures burdened by inconvenient doubles, also dwells on the figurative possibilities provided by motion-capture technology. Cheng’s unstable creations are abandoned to their vigorous spasmodic activity, ultimately getting nowhere; likewise, Atkins’s dead-eyed heads remain suspended in their depressive state.
Yet as João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva can attest, digital media is not the only home of the bizarre. Shooting on 16mm film, Gusmão and Paiva capture scenes that harken back to earliest cinema’s possibilities for new forms of vision: the tough rind of an elephant’s trunk as it squirms in the difficulty of sucking up a few peanuts, the revolutions of an egg (in a sequence reminiscent of Hollis Frampton’s Lemon), three albinos joking by a fire, a bright-faces cassowary wandering before a painted forest backdrop. Yet whether these sights merely amount to nostalgic consumption is a question the films fail to ask. By contrast, Laida Lertxundi’s Utskor: Either/Or—graceful 16mm chronicles of a Norwegian landscape far from her usual Californian locale with cues ranging from Bobby Bland to Frederick Engels—gently inquires about the relevance of analogue technologies while making the medium feel thoroughly contemporary.
Other works at Migrating Forms contended with the contemporary circulation of images. Jon Rafman’s Popova-Lissitsky Office Complex and Juan Gris Dream House—an offshoot of his ongoing Brand New Paint Job series of stills—move through architectural models decorated with modernist artworks. Rafman uses architectural allegories to remind us of modernism’s truces with industrial society. The videos become a sardonic sales pitch, accompanied by appropriate muzak and completed with frozen miniatures depicting ideal foot traffic. Rafman’s use of a corporate mode—the simulation of yet-to-be-built, saleable spaces—is formally interesting at a time when artists continue to concern themselves with questions surrounding late capitalism’s failures and excesses. The models are eerily still, but the moving images based upon them evoke the constant activity of culture, finance, and real estate.
Tomonari Nishikawa’s 45 7 Broadway and Gina Telaroli’s Amuse-gueule #1: Digital Destinies also feature media looking at other media, with an emphasis on transformative processes. Nishikawa’s multilayered film works with Times Square’s hallucinatory thicket of digital signage, while Telaroli transmutes a sequence from Michael Mann’s Public Enemies into explosions of light and sound. The routinely elaborate manipulation of images is the ostensible subject of Digital Destinies—a text accompanying the video details the reframing steps taken to produce it, from HD to Vimeo—but the piece delights in the potential for a sublime aesthetic experience while ironically undercutting it.
45 7 Broadway
Two more disparate works of compilation were James Richards’s Not Blacking Out, Just Turning the Lights Off and Shambhavi Kaul’s Mount Song. Not Blacking Out journeys through footage culled from the Web, while Mount Song assembles a variety of sinister and exotic studio sets. Both works choose suggestive atmospherics over rigorous scrutiny. Kaul draws our attention to cinematic spaces in which we are not meant to linger, while Richards revels in combinations of sound and image that veer from congruity to dissonance.
In a similar vein, Andrew Lampert’s intriguing archival thought experiment El Adios Largos posits a past in which Robert Altman’s languorous The Long Goodbye is a mythical lost work, a cinephilic dream. The fictional backstory: after finally surfacing in Mexico, the film was subject to a botched restoration. The result is the unfamiliar experience of a counterculture classic with pop-art colorizations and dubbed Spanish voices that feel detached from the bodies of Elliott Gould and even his cat. What if this had been the cultural object we’d inherited? With that experiment, El Adios Largos might be the most succinct explication of Migrating Forms at its best: it makes the cinema a space where we reimagine our history as much as our future.